Founders mindful of harm by and to religions

By Abraham Ogman
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 10, 2005

Every time a proponent of destroying church-state separation justifies his or her position, we are told that the founding fathers were God-fearing people. We are reminded that the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, among other documents, include God in their text.

It is quite evident that most of the founding fathers believed in God. However, that is not the issue in the argument over church-state separation. The founding fathers just as fervently believed in the unequivocal separation of religion and the state.

What, apparently, is not apparent to those who oppose church-state separation is that the motivation was the abuses wrought by state-recognized churches in the Colonial period. Today we forget, or choose to ignore, the discrimination against Catholics by the state-recognized church in Maryland, or the suffering of Baptists at the hands of the established church in Massachusetts. It was not unusual for the constitutional debate to draw attention to abuses of religious minorities in New York, Virginia and Georgia by the established state religions.

What follows is a small sample of the thoughts of our founding fathers -- from speeches and writings -- on the subject of church-state relationships.

John Winthrop, in a speech to the Massachusetts Convention in 1788 addressing the matter of an amendment guaranteeing religious freedom, noted that "the Framers of this new Constitution did not even think it necessary that the president should believe that there is a God."

Alexander Hamilton notes in Federalist LXIX that the president has "no particle of spiritual jurisdiction."

James Madison, answering Patrick Henry's objection on the supposed failure of the Constitution to secure religious liberty, noted: "There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermingle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation."

The founders were very mindful that almost all religions that arrived on these shores to avoid persecution at home immediately established state religions that discriminated against other religions. No lesser personages than Jefferson and Madison were instrumental in disestablishing the state church in Virginia.

Madison again, responding to a Patrick Henry observation that "what has been more productive of mischief among mankind than religious disputes," noted that "fortunately for this commonwealth, a majority of the people are decidedly against any exclusive establishment."

The Rev. Isaac Spencer noted in 1788 that the Constitution "leaves religion on a solid foundation of its own inherent validity, without any connection with temporal authority."

We would do well to hearken to the words of James Tredell, a fervent Federalist and a Washington appointee to the Supreme Court: "This country has had the honor of setting an example of civil freedom and I would trust it will likewise have the honor of teaching the rest of the world the way to religious freedom also. God grant both may be perpetuated to the end of time."

The issue is not whether one believes in God, but whether we want to regress to the times when religious expression was under the ruinous thumb of politicians and bureaucrats.

Abraham Ogman is a resident of Delray Beach.

Copyright 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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